Back in the days when real men wore wigs and died by the age of 50, products of musical improvisations were called variations. Since the only way to document a piece of music was to write it down on paper, these variations on pre-existing themes would be played again and again by its composer, gradually being worked into a piece of music in its own right. It was a luxury you could afford if you were well established, like J.S. Bach. Otherwise, the idea of toying around with someone else’s melody, or one that you had already written long ago, was considered to be a waste of time. Even an esteemed composer such as Beethoven, who loved to improvise for hours on end while he was just cutting his teeth as a composer, had to hide his love of variations for a while. It wasn’t until he was caught by one of his mentors, leading to brief embarrassment, that he was openly encouraged to pursue the art of the variation.
One of the most famous examples of a mass-scale classical music born out of improvisations is J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for the harpsichord (though it is commonly, as is the case here, performed on piano). It has been recorded many times, twice by Glenn Gould, but it’s safe to say that Dan Tepfer’s new release is unlike any other currently out there. The original “Aria” that gets things started is there, with the writing co-credited to Tepfer himself. He performs the thirty variations just like anyone else and then wraps up the whole thing with another “Aria” rendition, switching the order of the names in the writing credit to Tepfer/Bach. But what’s different is that each variation, all thirty of them, have a corresponding improvisation on the variation he just played. Goldberg Variations / Variations just about doubles the length of the original work, bloating it to 62 tracks spanning more than 77 minutes. It really is quite an undertaking. Not only does Dan Tepfer have to learn the whole original score, but he has to work out thirty individual vignettes to stand apart from one another while fending off claims that old Johann must be spinning in his grave.
It goes without saying that the nature of improvisation has changed since the time of Bach. Back then, the performer could musically explore their spontaneous ideas while staying within the confines of classical forms. It proved to be good enough for the time since Bach was able to wring 30 little tunes from the same progression of chords. But Tepfer, who is primarily a jazz pianist, doesn’t feel the same pressures. His own improvisations find his piano skills taking off into a strange, third direction – not really jazzy, not at all classical. The harmonies will hold together the way you think they would one moment, then unravel in a pattern that only a 21st century education would explain. Tempos are of little concern as Tepfer’s left and right hands refuse to perfectly match up. Not every improvisation movement gives you an aggressive fistful of modern. Some of them would not cause anyone to blink if they were coming from a Dave Brubeck or a (decidedly weirder) George Winston solo record. But it’s nevertheless easy to tell which kind of piece is playing without having to look at your CD player/media player.
And there is the issue of musical sacrilege, which I haven’t yet addressed. Sure enough, there will be people who think this is a terrible idea. Why try to improve upon a time-honoured composition with your own modernist ideas? And why sequence them to be part of that overall composition? Tepfer isn’t trying to improve upon anything, though. You wouldn’t say such a thing about a saxophonist giving the world its millionth solo for “A Night in Tunisia,” so why treat Bach any differently? Tepfer realizes this can be thin ice. If he were to try any of these new variations in 1741, he would have had his ears boxed by his patron. His humming accompaniment, much like the vocalizations provided by Keith Jarrett and Glenn Gould – two notable performers of the “Goldberg Variations,” can also be a turn off for listeners. As far as yours truly is concerned, I’m more partial to eclecticism than consistency most days of the week. In this case, eclecticism and irreverence can be mutually exclusive traits. If anything, Dan Tepfer is just telling us how he feels. He puts it best in his press release, so I’ll let him have the last word: “What I’m doing is definitely loving. But instead of recording the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and then writing lengthy liner notes about how I feel about them, I’m expressing how I feel about them in music, with my improvisations on Bach’s variations.”
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